Wednesday, January 18, 2017

5 Story Arguments that Compel Learners to Pay Attention - Tip #117

Learning is like watching someone else’s story.

Observe what happens when you listen to a story from your parents, spouse or loved one, kids, bosses, or even a homeless person on the street. Did you notice how there’s always an argument that pops up in your mind? This happens instantly, automatically, and unconsciously.

Arguments and Persuasion
I remember my kids’ book when they were in high school titled “Everything’s an Argument” by Andrea Lunsford, John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. It’s basically a manual on how to analyze and create arguments.

Why do we need to learn how to argue? It has everything to do with persuasion.

Philosophy and logic defines an argument as “a series of statements typically used to persuade someone of something or to present reasons for accepting a conclusion.”

This is the flow of terminology in arguments.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Farcaster

There are two sides to every argument. The formal side is the thinking process. The more subtle but powerful side is the emotional aspect. These two elements—logic and emotion—make for perfect persuasion.

The strongest forms of arguments are those that are represented by people with their points of view—the emotional points of view. Although an argument is a formalistic process, it is driven by its emotional context because its emotional appeal (or pathos) aligns with and therefore appeals to the needs, values and emotions of the audience.

In their book “Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character” Christopher Vogler and David McKenna say a strong story always has two people with opposing points of view, each one trying to persuade the other. These points of view may be represented by objects, as in the whale in Moby Dick, or the one ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” We even use people like Miss Piggy or Oscar the Grouch.
5 Story Arguments
Here are five story arguments that always help me start a story (there are many more, but these are most compelling to me):
  1. Deprivation versus abundance
  2. Injustice versus fairness
  3. Love or hate
  4. Reward or punishment
  5. Agony or ecstasy

Let's drill down and see how we can use these to engage learners.

1. Deprivation vs. Abundance

Sudden deprivation from abundance is a scary prospect. What happens if you lose your job, work days are reduced, or you can’t walk due to an accident at work, etc.?

Let’s look at this example:

Ben: "I'm very happy where I am now - good pay and my boss treats me well - so I don't have to sweat it."

Kelly: “Have you heard about a buyout of our company? The rumor is that our stocks have plummeted; that our management team will lose their jobs.”

Reflective question (I always ask these questions to allow the learner to be drawn into the argument): Ben's your close friend. What would you tell him?

2. Injustice vs. Fairness

Can you imagine if your company suddenly changed its performance evaluation practices? How would you feel?

Violence at work can be triggered by sudden changes in how workers are treated. If these changes cause alarm and workers begin to think the organization is no longer loyal to them, or if these changes are applied inappropriately, then this can result in a more aggressive workplace. Aggression is a manifestation of workers’ frustration, stress and emotional disturbances. If you dig deeper, this will lead you to the root cause: their perception of injustice.

Here’s another example:

Rebecca: “Why, I should call in sick! After all that is why it’s there. I can have fun with my kids at Disneyland.”

Reflective question: “What happened to the sense of duty and decency?”

There are always protectors of fairness and violators of justice. Perhaps, that’s why wars are hard to end, but seem easy to start. Just imagine road rage or someone cutting the line in the supermarket.

3. Love or Hate

Have you read this very touching story of a mother’s sacrifice? The son hates his mother so much, but in the end, he realizes she loved him so much and she didn’t deserve his hatred, but rather his love.

In stories of people around us, love or hate can be so powerful. Just listen to their conversations: “I love that or I hate that.” The more penetrating ones are those of love that is willing to sacrifice or hate that offers forgiveness.

Lessons that start with forgiveness and sacrifice move people. They move learners. Why? Because we all know how hard it is to sacrifice and forgive.

Take this example:

Becky: “I continue to work long hours and double shifts. My daughter is in college.”

Reflective question: “What drives Becky?”

4. Reward or Punishment

We all seek rewards. We want to be respected, recognized and valued for our contribution to the group. Rewards give us a sense of achievement. On the other hand, withholding rewards or even worse, ignoring a well-earned reward causes contempt and unhappiness.

Lessons that start with this incident raise the argument within the learner.

For instance:

Bert (the boss): “Hey John, great work! You did it.”

Maria (team member): “I lost sleep to make that report, and not even a thank you.”

Reflective question: “How could this moment be an opportunity to motivate others?”

5. Agony or Ecstasy
In the corporate ladder, everyone is in the race to climb to the top. Promotions are seen as ultimate prizes for the winner. But someone aiming to get promoted knows how agonizing the climb can be, as evident in the example above.

Here’s another example.

Karen: “I’m really ecstatic that I got the promotion!”

Nick: “Yeah, but you’ll be working longer hours, too.”

Reflective question: How can feelings of ecstasy and agony be utilized to motivate learners?


Learning is listening to stories of other people and sharing our own stories. It is about the blending of the mind and emotions. It is about making the dualistic nature of things—deprivation and abundance, injustice and fairness, love and hate, reward and punishment, agony and ecstasy—an opportunity to learn.


Wikipedia. “Argument”
White, Robert F., "Workplace violence: A case study" (2002). UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones. Paper 522.
Jai, USA. “Mother’s sacrifice”

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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